What was once novel is now a discussion killer
On May 27th, after an almost three-year wait, the first seven episodes of the fourth season of Netflix’s endlessly popular television series Stranger Things became available. It should have been one of the year’s largest events. But, for all of the minutes watched, all of the Tweets sent, all of the conversations had; a strange phenomenon occurred. Barely a couple of days after Netflix released the first seven episodes (of nine, the final two episodes arrive on July 1st) of the season, the conversation around the series came to a halt.
This is not to suggest that people aren’t still heavily consuming the series. It is still first place on Netflix’s Top 10 Television Series statistics. But the decline in Google searches for the series and the disappearance of Twitter trends named after the principal characters suggest one thing: the discussion is over.
The fact that this all happened so quickly seems questionable at first. But, Stranger Things’ failure to generate long-lasting conversation is part of a larger trend. The binge-watching model–the idea of releasing an entire television series at once, allowing people to watch one episode right after another–is destined to fail.
The concept of the binge model is rooted in the idea of “eventizing” a television series, of chaining a series to a certain release date and making it completely accessible, to all subscribers, to consume on their own time. When Netflix’s House of Cards introduced the viewing method in 2013, the simplicity of binging ensured its success, providing convenience for consumers and promising statistics for Netflix. It seemed inevitable that weekly episodes would become a thing of the past.
The problem with binging is that television series aren’t meant to be just one event. The goal of television is to generate spectacle out of each episode, to not just hook viewers into wanting to see what happens next, but to convince them that they must continue to tune in if they don’t want to fall behind. Releasing an entire season at once goes against this ideal. Instead, this method combines a season’s various storylines into one jumbled mess that is impactful for a short period, but loses steam quickly when viewers move on to the next big event.
Season Four of Stranger Things could have easily generated nine weeks of continuous conversation. Each episode of the Duffer Brothers’ series is an event in itself, filled with big-budgeted spectacle, viral moments and runtimes adjacent to feature-length films. The fourth episode’s final sequence, which features Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God),” sent the 1985 tune into the Billboard Top 10 for the first time ever. Regardless of how long the wait between seasons was, it’s clear that the series’ popularity is still there.
It’s safe to say the season’s failure to generate lasting conversation is a product of how Netflix released it. The decision to make all the episodes available at once created discrepancies between the viewing pace of each audience member. After all, how could a viewer comment on a season that they hadn’t finished yet, knowing that any foray into the discussion would have just spoiled the rest of the episodes?
And the fact that discussion could only occur after people finished the series drove them to consume the episodes as quickly as possible–rendering cliffhangers unimportant, dramatic moments forgettable and individual episode themes non-existent. Even now, just weeks after binge-watching the season, I wouldn’t be able to explain what happened in each episode if someone asked. That’s the thing, though, binge-watching rewards the act of racing through a series. This process renders secondary the show’s identity and meaning.
HBO’s Euphoria, whose second season came out earlier this year, is a perfect example of why the weekly-release method is much more feasible in our age of seemingly endless entertainment options. Regardless of that series’ flaws, for eight weeks, it felt like one needed to tune in, not only to see what happened to the characters, but to understand the conversation around the series, mainly on Twitter, that would trend for days after each episode’s release on Sunday nights. The seven-day break between episodes allowed viewers to consider the events that occurred in the episode before, and to theorize with others about what could happen next.
Euphoria’s success – along with the success of other hit television series this year, like Apple TV+’s Severance or Hulu’s The Dropout–prove that there is still value in releasing television episodes weekly. With this format, the conversation around a given series is more likely to be continuous from its pilot to its finale. Because of this, it’s much easier for new viewers to hear about a series, and to venture into discovering these stories for themselves. It’s a win for viewers, and it’s a win for producers. So, why does binging continue to stick around?
As the statistics show: binging sells. According to Netflix reports, season four of Stranger Things amassed 335 million hours of streams during its first week of release. The ability to gain numbers like this, and to have everyone talking about the series as a communal event, is powerful. But, in the binging economy, large numbers like this have a downside. The statistics may initially appear overwhelming, but they’re also short-lived.
Even the Google Trends for the search term ‘Stranger Things’ show one burst of popularity during the fourth season’s premiere week, followed by a sharp decrease in searches during the season’s second week. In contrast, Euphoria’s Google statistics depict a relatively steady trendline during the second season’s eight-week run, with nearly an equal number of searches on the nights of its season premiere and season finale. Large viewing numbers may have suggested success in the past. But in a world where social media connects everyone, conversation is the new currency.
As Netflix recently announced, Stranger Things will conclude with its fifth season. If the events of the series’ current season (so far) suggest anything, it’s that viewers can continue to expect loud sequences, striking moments and overwhelming spectacle. In fact, with the end so near, the next season’s episodes are probably going to be even more eventized. All these factors point to one fact: it’s time for the series to generate some long-lasting conversation before it’s too late. To make that possible, the binge-watching model must go.